Dumb TV’s Are a Dying Breed

\"insignia\"Recently our TV died, or came as close to it as it could (I’ve got grand plans to order a part and try to fix it, but that’s another story).

Despite not subscribing to cable, our loss underscored how dependent we were on a TV as a medium. With Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, youtube, over the air sports (I miss you too, ESPN, but not enough to pay for you), and video games, it got a lot of use.

So buying a new TV was in order, but the market had moved in the last six years. It seems all of the TV’s have been studying really hard and are now “smart”, which sounds like a wonderful thing.

It used to be that a TV got inputs from other things, like antennas or cable boxes, projected a good picture and maybe even good audio, and considered it a good day’s work.

Now, the new breed of TV’s can do so much more: they have their own wireless connectivity, you can use them to access the internet and all that it provides, and you can load apps and other cool software on them. These TV’s have become, for all intents and purposes, computers.

What an awesome idea – take a technology (the screen) that should last for years and years, and marry it in a single product to a technology (the computer-like hardware and software) that should last 5-10 minutes.

Perhaps I’m being a bit pessimistic. Perhaps the computerish hardware they put in smart TV’s today will still be cutting edge in 5 years. And perhaps Sony, Sharp, Samsung, and friends will be able to continue updating awesome software and features to compete fully with Google, Amazon, Apple, and a bunch of nerds in a garage somewhere. While simultaneously making massive advancements in better TV screens, of course. Good luck guys!

I quickly concluded that a “smart” TV was most certainly not the AK-47 approach to take, but the music stopped when I realized that dumb TV’s weren’t just less fancy and popular, they were dying out. Sure, they were still available in places, especially online, but if you applied a certain set of filters:

  • Available in a physical store*;
  • Highly rated;
  • 42 to 48 inches; and
  • Dumb

There were literally no TV’s I could find to buy.

* The troops were getting restless and I didn’t want to wait on shipping – they had earned a Wild Kratts-themed TV night and the iPad was a poor replacement screen. Plus, all things equal, I’d prefer not to have huge, fancy electronics requiring a signature delivered to my house.

I’m happy to bow to the inevitability of technological progress. I was OK with having smartness built into my TV since it seemed like something you could simply ignore. It’s just that I felt the feature was worthless, so I wanted to know what kind of premium I’d be forced to pay for it.

And that was a new struggle. There were very few apple to apple (other than the big brain) TV comparisons available. Older TV’s were dumb, and newer TV’s with better pictures etc. were smart. It was hard to make a fair comparison with smartness as the only difference.

Brain Transplants, for Under $100

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But I finally concluded that the smartness premium was at least $100 for a 48 inch TV. Which confused the heck out of me, because that was more than any of the current crop of fancy media-streaming gadgets (Roku, Fire, Chromecast, Apple TV) which could provide a brain transplant for a dumb TV.

So I sat there, annoyed, not willing to pay $100 for something I saw as worthless, but needing to provide some high-quality Wild Kratts TV entertainment to some deserving goblins, stat.

In my desperation, I widened my search and lowered my standards from just the top brands. I had assumed that Costco and Wal-Mart together would offer everything Best Buy had at the same or better prices. And I was largely correct. But when I checked the Best Buy site again, now looking for any dumb TV at all, I saw something I hadn’t expected, did some quick research on Consumer Reports, and within an hour had a shiny new dumb TV cradled in my arms.

My shiny, new, dumb Insignia TV.

You heard me. Insignia.

No, I didn’t know it was a TV brand either, but turns out it is the house brand of Best Buy, often has guts from more awesome TV’s, and is extremely highly rated. It is way cheaper than any comparable TV, as it\’s missing both a brand and a smartness premium.

I plugged it in, the picture was great, the audio was awesome, and the Wild Kratts were up to their old antics in no time.

My TV May Be Dumb, but It Has Lots of Potential

If you have recently bought a super awesome smart TV, I think it should bother you that in two years, my Insignia TV, with a state-of-the-art brain transplant, will likely be much smarter than yours. I don’t know which streaming media device will power its content then, but I know it’ll be snugly plugged into an HDMI input and will probably cost way less than $100. My money is on whatever the nerds in the garage are developing.

TV Manufacturers, Pay Attention

So here’s a novel concept – a TV should broadcast excellent video and audio for whatever you decide to hook up to it. It should not start acting like a computer and load lots of fancy hardware and software to that end. With that in mind, and keeping as many options open in the future, TV companies should be maximizing HDMI and other inputs and leave the smarts to someone else. I’m no engineer, but I imagine it’s a lot less hard to add one more HDMI slot than it is to make a TV “smart”.

Unfortunately, I know how hard it is for these companies to resist the arms-race of adding smartness, so we may be stuck with smart TV’s for a while. Perhaps another way they could tackle this problem is to radically shorten the life of the TV screen so it dies around the same time the smart technology is obsolete…

Buying Advice

So in TV’s, and in all things:

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  • Don\’t be fooled by the combination product. When companies combine products, they act like they\’ve hit on a brilliant, never-before-seen idea. But they\’re really just wrapping a sausage in a pancake.
  • Buy only what you need. If you need a TV screen, just buy that. If you need a media streaming device, ditto.
  • Have a plan for obsolescence for every feature / component in your product (Hint: the easiest way to do this is to minimize the features. Quench your thirst for extra bells and whistles with a completely separate product.)
  • Bonus: Buy a generic / house brand if you can, especially when the product may be virtually identical to more expensive branded products.

You’ll save a lot of money, have a more flexible and hassle-free product portfolio, and, most importantly, make me proud.

I have hope that the TV companies realize they are putting unnecessary technology into their products and leave it to the inputs, plus some nerds in a garage, to manage the content. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

We’ve Been Here Before

There are many who might say I’m an old school Luddite who has an issue with almost any new technology. Those people are correct.

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But I’ve also got a long memory, and this isn’t the first game-changing marriage of technologies in a TV. I remember fondly the combination / mutation TV + VCR.

Some of the common problems with the TV+VCR combination included:

  • The quality of the two devices was never exactly the same – how could it be?
  • You risked losing both products, at least for a time, if either one of them went out (e.g., your TV getting bored sitting in the VCR repair shop, your suddenly useless VCR fused to a dead TV)
  • There wasn’t any real discount, and there was often a premium, to buying the combination product
  • Technology marched much faster for one type of product than the other (remember DVD players?)
  • You couldn’t upgrade one product at a time as technology advanced (I guess you could, but it’d look pretty silly and defeat the whole purpose of a combo product)

Peering into my crystal ball, I think the same critiques will apply to smart TV’s.

So if you see a TV in your near future, go buy a dumb one while you still have the chance.

 

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